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How I Shoot- How to Make a Budget and Fantastic Travel Camera Bag (that doesn’t look like a camera bag)!


How I Shoot: A new series coming from yours truly at BeersandBeans. It’s going to be a monthly series where I highlight something I find useful in terms of travel photography – be it gear, tips, technical data, etc. Hope you like it – this is the first installation!

Well I think a lot of my followers know that I am super budget when it comes to travel. I like to STRETCH my dollar as far as possible so I can stay on the road longer. But no matter what I do, one part of travel that can be extremely expensive is my photography gear. I try to buy the best deal possible, but sometimes what I need just costs a good chunk of money and there isn’t much I can do about it.

But I am always racking my brain for new ideas about camera gear that I can make myself or find cheaper–read: isn’t labeled as photographic gear. It seems once you add the “photo” label onto things the price goes through the roof.

Remember when I wanted the ridiculously overpriced Hoodman ($80) to check my LCD screen in the sun? Luckily the store ran out and I made my own (which I still use and carted around Europe with me) for only $1 !!! Sure it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, but it gets the job done and for a buck – I’m happy. If you missed that post check it out – Travel Photo Gear Hack.

Another great way to save money on gear is with your camera bag. I am always scouring around for the perfect bag. I love multiple pockets, over the shoulder bags and cool designs, but I hate the $100+ price tag that comes on most photo bags I like. Plus, I have one golden rule for traveling with my camera –


Never. Ever.

Why should I? Nothing says “Please Rob Me” more than having a techie looking bag slung on your back, especially one that has a brand name on it. I have taken my camera to some pretty sketchy places and it’s nice to know that if I feel uncomfortable I can simply leave it in the bag and no one will know that it even exists. I also love shooting street photos and I like to be as undercover as possible. Plus, I find that most camera bags aren’t great for travel. They are too bulky, yet don’t have room for everything I need (guidebook, water bottle, etc). And I hate the way they stick out from my body when I am wearing them. As much as I still like to admire camera bags (I always play around with them at camera shops), I don’t really use them. I don’t even use a “camera” bag when I shoot weddings.

I will be honest and say that I have spent years constantly on the search for the perfect bag.

I’ve tried everything from a Mexican street bag to a small, flexible lunch cooler. For months, I scouted around, looking for the perfect diaper bag to use (they’re already padded and hey who is going to think about stealing a diaper bag!). But whenever I found one that was the right size and didn’t have a picture of Winnie the Pooh on it – the price was through the roof, which nixed the deal. Maybe someday if we have a kid I can do a combo deal – diapers & lenses! hahaha

ahhh....Pockets Galore!

At long last, I thought I found the perfect bag when I found this gem at an Army Navy store for only $27. It has several pockets and even two on the ends (I used one for my water bottle and and for my beer cozy loupe)! To top it off it was already lined with a plush padding similar to a real camera bag. I have no idea why but it’s perfect! And it actually came with a removable insert that I could use to separate items. To top it off the entire inside is made of velco (the soft side of velcro), which means I can actually arrange camera bag inserts into it if I want and they stay in place. It fits all my travel gear (Nikon D300s w/ 18-250 lens, 35mm lens, SB900 flash, various filters, cards, batteries) and it’s made out of a super tough canvas. It also looks cool. I love this bag and for $27 you can’t go wrong.

I love this bag, just a bit too big for every day use on the road.

I brought it to Europe, but as it turns out it was also too much to carry on a daily basis. After toting it around day in and day out, it ended up suffering from the same “too bulky” problem that most camera bags have. After awhile my back was killing me, and this bag was traded in for another bag I had brought with me as a back up. I still use the Army Navy bag but not on the daily basis that I use this $7 wonder.

The main bag I travel with (and shoot weddings with) currently is this little purple beauty.

Randy models the purple wonder!

I bought the purple bag at Walmart for $7. Yup, that’s right only 7 bucks. This little bad boy holds all of the same gear as the Army Navy Bag. It’s a great, simple bag; though, I had to make some minor adjustments in order to use it for my photo gear. I’m going to give a run down of what I did to it so that you can do the same if you wish.

Yes, you too, can be free of the bulky camera bag and the insane price tag that goes with it.

There are 4 important *Must Have* things I need in a camera bag:

1. A comfy strap

2. Pockets

3. Padding

4. Zipper Enclosure

Most likely a $7 bag is not going to come with all of those things.

So how did I turn a $7 Walmart bag into a kickin’ travel camera bag?

First: I snapped a padded shoulder strap onto the already existing metal areas for the original strap. I left the original strap on and it’s been a great decision because if I need to, I can use the camera strap and the normal strap for extra security and comfort. I already owned this strap but new it would cost about $20.

Second: My nickname as a kid was Pockets. I LOVE pockets – the more the better. Turns out this bag has 1 large zippered pocket and 2 smaller open pockets inside. At first, I thought I would need more pockets, so I bought a flexible pencil case to store my memory cards and batteries in. I was initially planning to sew it into the interior of the bag to create another pocket, but I never used it. Turns out the zippered pocket fits my credit cards, ID, passport and memory cards. I use the open interior pockets for easy grab items like filters, business cards and a pen.

This stuff is great - inexpensive, lightweight and protective!

Third: This bag is super thin and has NO padding at all – Good for being lightweight, bad for protecting gear. I actually love the thin, lightweight aspect of the bag, but I was definitely not going to throw all of my photo gear in a non padded bag and go off gallivanting the world that way and I don’t recommend you do that either. So while I was in Walmart, I headed over to the bedroom department and bought a twin egg crate mattress for $9. I went home and cut off a section that fit perfectly into my bag. Instant padding! I love this! Not only is it sufficient padding for the bag and my gear, I can also remove it if I have to and use it elsewhere to protect my camera. What is nice about this is you can really custom pad your bag with as much padding as you want. Another great thing is that I brought an extra piece which wraps around our laptop. Occasionally on a night out we would put all the gear, including the laptop, in the purple bag. It meant we could trade off carrying gear (instead of us both having a bag) and everything was protected with it’s respective eggcrate. Normally, the laptop is carried in a retrofitted CamelBak (with it’s own non-eggcrate carrier) that is also set up as a 2nd home for camera gear (I’ll elaborate on this in another post). The key thing in designing your eggcrate insulation is to remember that not only do you need to protect your gear from bumps on the outside of the bag, but you also you need to prevent your gear from bumping into other gear in the bag. When you make your own lining, you can customize your sections however you want, plus the egg crate material is really lightweight.

Yah! It expands for more space!

Fourth: This bag already had a zipper enclosure, and as an added bonus it’s also a long bag so the top actually flips down over the side. I love this because it really doesn’t look like a camera bag at all and if I need to put more items in there I can just extend the top and magically double my space! I can actually fit a journal, a guidebook/map, my camera, a flash, extra lens, extra batteries, memory cards and a couple other miscellaneous things in here. I put the guidebook and maps to the side to provide for extra padding. I can put a water bottle in here as well but I don’t out for fear of water leaking on my gear, so I just attach my water bottle to the outside of the bag. I recommend you never carry a water bottle in any camera bag, because one day it will leak and you will be really, really unhappy.

The water bottle reminds me of another important aspect of any camera bag (bought or created). Waterproof your gear if you can. I always get caught in rainstorms, so I carry around a duck back from REI as well (around $15) and I simply cover my bag with it. They are extremely lightweight and it is a must have for anyone on the road with technical gear, which I’m pretty sure is just about everyone. I have used it several times and like the shoulder strap, it’s priceless. In the backpack, I also carry a wet bag but we have yet to use it.

So for about $36 you could buy all of these items and make your own, fantastic camera bag. If you already own any of these items, you might be able to make a great camera bag for free! If you don’t want to make one but still want to find a more budget friendly option be sure to check out your local Army Navy store or Goodwill. You can find great bags in there at a huge discount that might be perfect.

My purple wonder is very lightweight, which for me is a huge bonus. I loved mine so much and I still had left over eggcrate so when we got back to the States I went back to Walmart and bought another one for $7 in black!

So whether you’re hopping trains in Europe, hiking mountains in Peru, partying up on clubbing holidays in Ibiza or just walking through the spice markets of Turkey you can be sure you have a great camera bag that not only protects your gear but is economical and won’t set off the radar of any would be thieves.

*Please remember all photos on this website, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted and property of, & Bethany Salvon. Please do not use them without my permission. If you want to use one of them please contact me first because I do love to share and I would be flattered. Thanks!

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